Plastic trash travels up to Arctic waters

Big and small bits of rubbish have been spotted in the Barents Sea, threatening animals there

sea trash

Plastic trash has been found in ocean waters around the world. Now it’s being seen in the Arctic. Discovering plastic pollution that far north suggests that a sixth garbage patch could be forming there. 

Steven Guerrisi/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Plastic trash has infiltrated the Arctic. Two new studies have spied bags, fishing rope and tinier bits of rubbish in the Barents Sea.

This sea sits north of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. It mixes with the Arctic Ocean, which is even farther north.

Barents Sea
The Barents Sea is that part of the Arctic that runs between parts of northern Russia and Greenland. NormanEinstein/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0)
“We often think that the filthy habits we have where we live don’t go as far as the Arctic,” says Erik van Sebille. He studies Earth’s climate and oceans at Imperial College London in England. He was not involved in the new studies but says the data show the Arctic is no longer a vast, pristine wilderness. It is becoming trashy. This is not surprising, he says, but very disappointing.

Plastic trash in the Arctic could harm wildlife and may hint that large volumes of human rubbish are collecting there, says Melanie Bergmann. She is one of the scientists who spotted the trash. She studies Earth’s oceans at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany. She first started counting bits of plastics in the Barents Sea because she kept spotting signs of the stuff there in images taken with deep-sea cameras.

Bergmann and her colleagues counted pieces of plastic from an icebreaker, a boat designed to break through large chunks of ice in very cold waters. They also tracked plastic pieces they saw during helicopter rides over Arctic waters. The team found 31 pieces of plastic. “That doesn’t seem like much, but it shows us that we’ve really got a problem, one that extends even to this remote area, far from civilization,” Bergmann says. She and her colleagues described their findings October 21 in Polar Biology.

Another team has also been counting plastics in the area. Those scientists scooped water from the Barents Sea and counted the number of smaller bits of plastics, called microplastics. It’s the first time scientists have counted plastics floating in the Arctic waters, the team wrote October 8 in Scientific Reports.

Why scientists are concerned

Plastic in the ocean is dangerous to animals. Some may get tangled in rope or bags. And wildlife may swallow bags and other plastic bits. That makes them feel full. But some may eventually starve because they are not getting the nutrients they need to live.

Sometimes plastics also may break down in an animal’s body and release toxic chemicals. If another animal later eats the one that swallowed plastic, it too can end up with poisonous chemicals in its body. This, in turn, can travel up the food web, endangering predators — even people.

Van Sebille points to yet another concern. The new studies only looked at trash at or just below the surface of Arctic waters. There may be way more trash on the ocean bottom. “There are a lot of animals living in water that’s 10,000 feet deep or more and encountering plastics,” he notes. “We have no idea what that does to the food web.”

Finding plastic in Arctic waters supports the idea that a whole lot of trash is building up somewhere in the Barents Sea. These collections are called “garbage patches.” Researchers have shown that there are five of these garbage patches in oceans around the world. Using computing modeling in 2012, van Sebille and his team predicted that a sixth patch is emerging somewhere in the Barents.

Spotting big and little bits of trash in the Arctic offers evidence of the existence of that sixth patch, Bergmann says. But, she adds, scientists don’t yet know how well developed it is.

What is clear, van Sebille says, is that the trash in the Arctic is probably not from the Arctic. “It’s our plastic,” he says. “It’s from Europe and North America.”

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

Arctic  A region that falls within the Arctic Circle. The edge of that circle is defined as the northernmost point at which the sun is visible on the northern winter solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun can be seen on the northern summer solstice.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O.

climate  The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

computer model  A program that runs on a computer that creates a model, or simulation, of a real-world feature, phenomenon or event.

food web  (also known as a food chain) The network of relationships among organisms sharing an ecosystem. Member organisms depend on others within this network as a source of food.

icebreaker    A large and powerful ship designed to plow into pack ice or major ice floes in polar regions so that other ships can get through without damaging their hulls.

infiltrate   To move into something, such as a liquid moving into and through the pores in soil.

marine   Having to do with the ocean world or environment.

microplastic   A small piece of plastic, 5 millimeters (0.2 inch) or smaller in size. Microplastics may have been produced at that small size, or their size may be the result of the breakdown of water bottles, plastic bags or other things that started out larger.

nutrients  Vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates and proteins needed by organisms to live, and which are extracted through the diet.

oceanography  The branch of science that deals with the physical and biological properties and phenomena of the oceans. People who work in this field are known as oceanographers.

plastic  Any of a series of materials that are easily deformable; or synthetic materials that have been made from polymers (long strings of some building-block molecule) that tend to be lightweight, inexpensive and resistant to degradation.

pollutant   A substance that taints something — such as the air, water, our bodies or products. Some pollutants are chemicals, such as pesticides. Others may be radiation, including excess heat or light. Even weeds and other invasive species can be considered a type of biological pollution.

predator (adjective: predatory)   A creature that preys on other animals for most or all of its food.

pristine    An adjective referring to something that is in original or near-original condition. It means something is somewhat old but in a seemingly “untouched” or unaltered condition.

toxic  Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.

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